High drama at the Boulder City Council — Steve Pomerance

POSTED:   03/16/2015 06:33:49 PM MDT

The last few months have certainly changed the city council’s discussions about growth and development. It was only last fall that council member Sam Weaver was roundly abused by some of his colleagues for even suggesting the notion of a moratorium on buildings requiring site review. (Site review includes projects requesting height exceptions over the by-right height limit of 35 feet, or 38 feet downtown.) Weaver’s objective was to put on hold the large development projects while the city deals with the long-term implications of Boulder’s significant growth potential, which was becoming a concern as more huge buildings were under construction.

Weaver then moderated his proposal, which he called the “Comprehensive Development Strategy,” and eliminated the partial moratorium. His thoughtful, far-reaching proposal was supported by Lisa Morzel, Mary Young and Suzanne Jones. But it lost 5-4 to a substitute motion brought forward by Macon Cowles and Tim Plass, which was clearly inadequate to deal with the big issues that Weaver was focusing on. And unlike Weaver’s motion, the Cowles/Plass proposal was brought forward at the meeting with no public notice, and was passed at that same meeting.

Early this year, apparently in response to citizen outcry, the city planning staff surprisingly put forward their own partial moratorium, allegedly to help reassure the public. But their moratorium included height exemptions for so many areas of town that it was pretty much irrelevant. Irrespective, the council passed it on first reading as presented. Then they sent it to the city planning board for a recommendation. The planning board held a hearing and recommended applying the height moratorium to almost all areas of the city.

Then the board’s recommendation went back to the council, and the fireworks started. Innuendos were made that planning board member (and former council member) Crystal Gray had discussed her motion with other board members prior to the meeting in a way that would have violated open meeting rules.

Adding fuel to the fire, Cowles asserted in a city Hotline, “…the Council heard from hundreds of stakeholders in the community who were not notified that the PB might consider and pass a blanket moratorium.” But the planning board has no power to pass a moratorium; only the council can do that. Also, the planning board meeting was properly noticed (by the way, that is the staff’s job, not the board’s) and a variety of people with many viewpoints did show up to testify.

Fortunately, the majority of the council did not support these attacks. But they did ask the city attorney to look into the open meeting issue, in spite of his observation that from what he had heard, there was no problem.


So now we have a gratuitous witch-hunt. And even though the planning board members didn’t do anything wrong, and have been totally open about what they did do, they will be stuck with these unfounded rumors. (This makes me question the motivation of their attackers; could it relate to this being an election year?)

The irony is that the Cowles/Plass motion brought forward last fall should have received the same or even more scrutiny. Unlike the planning board’s motion that was only advisory, the Cowles/Plass council motion told the staff what to do and what not to do. And it was brought up at the meeting with no notice, so that the public was blindsided. The scrutiny that’s good for the geese ought to be equally good for the ganders.

The council revised its moratorium at second reading to make it more meaningful. But they included a height exemption for projects with 50 percent affordable units, and then dropped the exemption percentage to 40 percent. Allegedly, there was some pressure from developers. Council members ought to have an obligation to disclose inputs from parties (like developers) who have a direct financial stake in such decisions. When such decisions come up again, we’ll see how the votes go and whether such lobbying is disclosed.

As a policy matter, providing more affordable housing should not be a bargaining chip to gain a height exemption. More affordable housing doesn’t make a building’s shadows more acceptable or block fewer views. And the council still has to deal with some other big issues before letting go of the controls on growth. Examples of this include implementing full cost jobs-housing linkage fees, preventing growth from causing increased traffic congestion, setting realistic housing priorities, and having our zoning regulations produce good design.

Steve Pomerance is a former Boulder city council member.